Skip to main content

To Heighten Creativity, Take a Good Look at Your Selves

Pondering your various social roles can stimulate innovative thinking.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: veleknez/Shutterstock)

(Photo: veleknez/Shutterstock)

Having trouble coming up with creative ideas? Well, who do you think you are?

That’s not a put-down: It’s a fundamentally important question, and newly published research suggests answering it can help inspire innovative thinking.

Specifically, it concludes spending a few minutes pondering the various identities you wear—spouse, parent, employee, sports fan, political partisan, what-have-you—can lead to more creative insights.

“A more versatile, integrated, or flexible self-view ... may offer a simple way to boost creativity,” writes a research team led by University of Chicago psychologist Sarah Gaither. Its study is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Gaither and her colleagues demonstrate this in a series of studies, the first of which featured 58 multiracial and 109 single-race participants. After answering a set of demographic questions, each was given one of two assignments: “Write one paragraph about your average day,” or “Write one paragraph about your racial identity, what it means to you, experiences you may have had, etc.”

"A more versatile, integrated, or flexible self-view ... may offer a simple way to boost creativity."

All then completed two creativity tasks, including the well-known Remote Associates Test. It inspires creative thinking by presenting participants with three words and then requiring them to think of a fourth that relates to all of them.

Multiracial participants who had written about their racial identity solved more of those problems than those who wrote about their average day. In contrast, scores of single-race participants did not significantly vary depending upon their essay.

“Multiracials were not always more creative than monoracials,” the researchers write, “but rather only outperformed them after racial priming.” In other words, pondering their various racial identities helped unblock their creativity in an unrelated arena.

Another study featured 57 participants, all of whom identified as belonging to a single race. They were instructed to either write the aforementioned essay about their average day, or to write “a few sentences about all of the different identities that you have (i.e., social identities, gender, race, family identities, group identities, etc. Write about how these multiple identities overlap and affect your life, and what they mean to you.”

Afterwards, they took the Remote Associates Test, as well as a pasta-naming task. Specifically, they were presented with five names of pastas, each of which ended in the letter "i." They were then asked to come up with five new names of pasta.

To determine whether they could think outside the, er, plate, their creativity was measured by counting the number of new pasta names that did not end with "i."

The results: Those who had written about their multiple identities scored higher on both tests, getting more RAT questions correct and coming up with more pasta names not ending in the obvious vowel.

“Creativity boosts associated with thinking about social identities flexibly are not limited to individuals who have inherently fluid identities,” the researchers conclude.

Gaither and her colleagues concede that their work is preliminary, and additional research will be required to determine precisely why this sort of reflection has a positive impact on creativity. But “given that everyone has multiple social identities,” they write, “the present findings suggest highly promising steps for increasing creativity in the general population by reframing views of the self.”

So the next time you’re stuck for a creative idea, you might want to spend a few moments thinking about the many roles you play in your life. It might inspire your next creative flash, like creating pasta noodles in the shape of fancy jewelry. Anyone for a nice plate of blinguine?